Elizabeth and Zechariah: Elder patrons of patience and praise

"Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah" by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490, fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence). Photo: Public Domain.
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Each year during November, the Church especially remembers the saints and souls in heaven. Some of them are famous — heroes and heroines who get their own feast days or memorials the rest of the year — but others are known only to a small circle of friends and family who revere the gift of their lives.

On two days in November, we recall a woman and man who fit both categories: Elizabeth (Nov. 5) and Zechariah (Nov. 15), the elderly parents of John the Baptist who are often in the background of the stories of Mary and Joseph, Jesus, and his cousin John. They are more familiar than some saints, but less than others. Let us attend to their witness and draw some biblical lessons for today from Jesus’ elderly aunt and uncle.

Tales of patience

We know Elizabeth and Zechariah from just one Gospel, Luke in his first chapter. They have been childless and are now in their senior-citizen years, just as their well-known precursors Abraham and Sarah had been. In fact, in the Bible, we find several incidents of infertility in older men as well as post-menopausal women. A woman past menopause cannot, of course, become pregnant and give birth, but then we have Sarah’s pregnancy with Isaac at age 90 plus Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist at an advanced age.

We meet Zechariah, a not uncommon name in the Bible also rendered as Zachary or Zacharias. He is a priest married to Elizabeth and both were old. One day, while Zechariah is offering incense in the Lord’s sanctuary, he is terrified by the appearance of an angel. The angel tells Zechariah that he and his wife will have a son, but the priest doubts what he hears. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). The angel, who is Gabriel, then informs Zechariah that because he doubted, he will be struck mute until the birth. Elizabeth suddenly conceives this child, a pregnancy she then hides for five months.

This was the normal time for confinement culturally, perhaps, but there is an interesting interpretation of this story found in the medieval collection of saints’ lives called the Golden Legend. Around the year 1260, a Dominican preacher named Jacobus de Voragine compiled these stories in order to demonstrate how the saints’ lives revealed God’s presence and help in salvation history. We read in his collection of tales that a fourth-century bishop of Milan named Ambrose speculated that Elizabeth may have “felt some shame at having a child at her age, fearing that she might seem to have indulged in lustful pleasure despite her years.”

Maybe Elizabeth, like Sarah so many centuries before, thought that her sexual activity might be considered unseemly by nosy neighbors. Flip back to Genesis 17–18. When Sarah and Abraham learn she is pregnant, both 99-year-old Abraham and Sarah at 90 burst out laughing. Abraham is so taken aback that he “fell face down and laughed as he said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah give birth at ninety?’” (17:17). Overhearing three mysterious visitors telling Abraham that she will have a son, Sarah chuckles to herself, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?” (18:12).

No matter. As the medieval Golden Legend continued, Elizabeth “also rejoiced at being rid of the reproach of sterility. It is a source of shame for women not to have the reward that belongs to marriage, since it is in view of that reward that marriage is a happy event and that carnal union is justified.” Elizabeth shares her joy with her cousin Mary, a teenager at the opposite end of life who also found herself suddenly and mysteriously pregnant. When that same angel, Gabriel, appeared to Mary six months later, the young girl’s fears were calmed by the angel’s announcement that her relative Elizabeth “has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren” (Luke 1:36).

Songs of praise

The Church celebrates the joy of these events with songs of praise called canticles taken directly from the New Testament accounts of Elizabeth and Mary’s pregnancies. The songs are placed into the daily prayer of the church called the Liturgy of the Hours. The first comes from Zechariah when he and Elizabeth bring the infant John to the Temple to offer him to Yahweh’s  service. It is Elizabeth who speaks, telling the gathering that their son is to be named John and not Zechariah, as everyone expected. When they turn to Zechariah, he writes “John” on a tablet and then regains the ability to speak he’d lost nine months earlier.

Zechariah’s song of praise is known as the Canticle of Zechariah and by its first word Benedictus (“blessed” in its eventual Latin translation, though he would have been speaking Aramaic or Hebrew). These verses make up Morning Prayer: It is how the church starts her day.

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people. He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant, even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old: salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to show mercy to our fathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that, rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:68–79).

At Evening Prayer, we turn to the Magnificat, also called the Canticle of Mary:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:46–55).

The Church ends her day with a third song of praise, this one from an old man named Simeon and also coming from the early days of Jesus and John’s lives. In this case, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple according to Jewish law in order to consecrate him to Yahweh’s service, as Elizabeth and Zechariah had just done with John a few months before. The church commemorates this event as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord each year on Feb. 2.

The scene appears, once again, only in Luke (2:25–38). There the new family encounters Simeon and Anna, an old man and woman who have been waiting to see the Messiah. Anna is even given the precise age of 84 and spent her days praying in the Temple, like many seniors who now have time for daily Mass and community service. When she heard the good news, Luke tells us, Anna “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).

What Anna had heard was Simeon’s proclamation, which the Church uses for its final prayer of the day in the Liturgy of the Hours, called Compline or night prayer. It’s also known as the Nunc, dimittis prayer since Simeon declares he is ready to die because he has seen the Savior, as Yahweh had promised:

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32).

Pope Francis preached directly on this scene in his February 2014 homily for the Presentation:

It is a meeting between the young, who are full of joy in observing the Law of the Lord, and the elderly who are full of joy in the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a unique encounter between observance and prophecy, where young people are the observers and the elderly are prophets!

These are scenes of revelation, of realization, and trust in God’s generosity, and intergenerational joy. For Pope Francis and for us, Elizabeth and Zechariah along with Simeon and Anna are senior-citizen prophets and models. They teach us patience and might be especially appealing for parents and grandparents waiting for children to come into their lives. And when those children come — as children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews, or maybe even protégés — they sing songs of praise to the God who gives life.

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